STANFORD — Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and Stanford’s David Shaw shared some laughs when they met for the first time this offseason during an annual Pac-12 Conference meeting.
Although they had never talked before, the similar circumstances that brought them together made them feel like they had known each other for years. Both had been promoted from offensive coordinator to replace popular predecessors, Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, after each moved on to NFL jobs.
“You take over and everybody says, ‘Who?”’ Shaw said. “But at the same time, both of us are coaching lifers that don’t care about what our name means or trying to take the limelight. It’s just about being smart football coaches and recruiting great players and keeping great coaches and giving them a chance to do what they do.”
Nobody is questioning either coach’s credentials this week.
Helfrich has No. 2 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) undefeated heading into Thursday night’s matchup at sixth-ranked Stanford (7-1, 5-1) in what has once again shaped up as the Pac-12’s game of the year. All Shaw has done is go 30-5 since taking over in 2011, leading the Cardinal to a conference championship and the program’s first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years last season.
Both coaches are quick to credit the other for sticking with what worked already and not making any major changes, even if it means not getting the same recognition as their predecessors.
Shaw stayed with the power running game and physical defense that Harbaugh built before leaving for the San Francisco 49ers after the 2010 season. And while Kelly is with the Philadelphia Eagles now, Oregon’s up-tempo offense and aggressive approach — faking punts, not punting on fourth down and going for two-point conversions — are still staples in Helfrich’s first season.
“It was very similar in terms of what they’ve done and what we’ve done has been really good and how can we do it a little bit better,” Helfrich said. “Not, ‘How can I come and change this so everyone thinks it’s my idea?’ As soon as you start doing that, you lose focus. The biggest thing in all of this is what your players believe in, what they can perform the best, how your program can continue to ascend because of what they do. I think we have a very similar approach in that way.”
Both coaches saw no reason to overhaul their programs. They inherited championship contenders led by Heisman Trophy favorites — Marcus Mariota at Oregon, and Andrew Luck at Stanford — in their first season, which brought the added pressure of keeping pace on the national stage.
Some changes still had to be made. Shortly after Shaw opened his first spring practice, he noticed some defensive players were not quite as comfortable with him yet, a few maybe even unsure of his abilities.
Shaw, now 41, said that when an offensive player made a mistake or took a “cheap shot” at a defensive player, he made sure to call them out in front of the entire team “just to show that I’m not the offensive coordinator who’s sitting in the coach’s office.”
“It was kind of a seamless transition,” Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. “We didn’t change much as a team. We kept a lot of the same coaches and all the players can all lean on each other.”
Helfrich, who turned 40 last week, hasn’t dealt with such challenges yet — though he’s in the honeymoon phase of his tenure, avoiding the kinds of questions and criticisms that come after losses.
But players praise Helfrich in similar fashion. He has carried on the culture that Kelly started, and that attitude no longer seems tied to just the head coach.
“It’s the Oregon way,” linebacker Derrick Malone said.
The most noticeable difference with the past and present coaches is the way they carry themselves.
While Harbaugh was constantly screaming at officials, waving his arms and pumping-up players by smacking their helmets, Shaw rarely shows emotion or screams on the sideline. Helfrich also comes off as more approachable and personable than Kelly, who often publicly challenged players and got defensive with reporters.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re both low key. I would say quietly competitive,” Shaw said. “I would say we both lean toward the cerebral approach as opposed to the emotional approach. We both talk in the same tones.”
And although their teams form the most talked-about rivalry in the Pac-12 North right now, don’t expect either coach to antagonize the other the way Harbaugh and Kelly often did.
“As much as everybody would hate to hear it,” Shaw said, “we actually get along really well.”
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Eugene, Ore., contributed to this story.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP